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This week, the "Race to the Chase" begins at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with the LENOX Industrial Tools 301. As we enter the 10-race stretch that leads up to the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, Fantasy players should keep certain factors in mind. There will be a heated battle for seedings at the top of the field, where Denny Hamlin now has the advantage. If the Chase were to begin this week, Hamlin would sit atop the ladder because he has the most victories in 2010 (five). Also, there is a highly competitive push for the final spot in the Top 12, currently occupied by Carl Edwards. Nine drivers sit within 200 points of Edwards' current slot. Some tough lineup decisions may swing in the directions of who has a greater sense of urgency in the standings at any time in the next 10 weeks. In the meantime, we should also note there have been 10 different winners in the past 10 New Hampshire races, a unique trend that is the longest current streak of its type in the Cup series.
1. Tony Stewart: He began the unique 10-race Loudon streak in 2005, and he enters this week as the best Fantasy choice in tiered and salary cap formats. Stewart has regained positive momentum recently with finishes of third, fifth and ninth leading up to New Hampshire, and is the ideal choice if you want to save some Jimmie Johnson or Hamlin starts for later in the schedule or save some money at the top of your lineup in cap formats. Stewart may not end up in Victory Lane, yet he will certainly contend for a top spot and is an ideal choice if your league limits driver starts or if you want to field a more balanced lineup. Stewart has two wins, 11 Top Fives and 13 Top 10s in 22 career starts at New Hampshire. Since the inception of Loop Data in 2005, Stewart leads all Cup competitors in Driver Rating (114.9), Fastest Laps Run (276) and Average Green Flag Speed (124.450 mph) at NHMS. He ranks second in Average Running Position (9.4).
2. Jimmie Johnson: He appears to be back in prime form after his win at Infineon Raceway, in which he scored a 148.0 DR (150.0 is the best that can be achieved). Johnson is a strong bet to keep the NHMS 10-race streak alive. Keep in mind Johnson has four wins in 2010 and is trying to match Hamlin in victories for Chase seeding purposes. He has two wins, five Top Fives and 11 Top 10s in 16 career New Hampshire starts. Since '05, he is second in DR (106.3), fourth in ARP (9.8), second in Laps in the Top 15 (85.3 percent) and third in Fastest Laps Run (230) and Quality Passes (336 passes of cars in the Top 15 while under green-flag conditions) at Loudon.
3. Denny Hamlin: Expect a quick rebound from his 34th-place finish at Sonoma. Hamlin has a win, three Top Fives and six Top 10s in eight Loudon starts, including a second-place finish in his most recent start at the site. He is fourth in DR (102.7), third in ARP (9.5) and fourth in Average Green Flag Speed (124.184 mph) at NHMS since '05. He is currently fourth in the Cup standings, yet should move back closer to the top with a very strong finish this week, and he will be determined to keep Johnson from matching his win total to this point. Hamlin should pick up where he left off two races ago and those who are concerned about his finish last week will get quick reassurance.
4. Kurt Busch: Like Hamlin, he will rebound from a forgettable Infineon finish (32nd). Busch was the last driver to sweep at Loudon (2004) before the 10-race trend started. He has three wins, six Top Fives and nine Top 10s in 18 career NHMS starts. Loop Data does not fully reflect how well Busch has run in recent years at New Hampshire. He is eighth in DR (91.6) and ninth in ARP (13.6). But he has a win and a third-place finish in each of the first races at the site in the past two seasons. He has placed sixth in the second Loudon event in each of the past two seasons.
5. Jeff Gordon: As long as no one seeks revenge for Gordon's aggressive approach at Sonoma, he should deliver another high-quality finish. Wins seem to be out of the question these days, but another Top Five should be expected as long as Martin Truex Jr. heard Gordon's classy apologies after Infineon. Gordon has three wins, 13 Top Fives and 16 Top 10s in 30 career starts at NHMS. Gordon leads all drivers in ARP at Loudon since '05 (7.4). He also leads in Laps in the Top 15 (89.9 percent) and Quality Passes (3410. He is second in DR (108.0), Fastest Laps Run (248) and Average Green Flag Speed (124.246 mph). Another week of close, yet not quite enough, will be very acceptable for Fantasy purposes.
6. Kevin Harvick: He remains atop the Cup standings and is coming off a third-place finish at Sonoma. He only has one win this season, so he is going to have to push for more victories during the Race to the Chase. Harvick has a win and nine Top 10s in 18 career New Hampshire starts. Yet he has not finished better than 10th at the site since the first race of 2007, and placed 34th and 32nd at NHMS last year. He is eighth in DR (93.2) and ARP (13.0) at Loudon. Harvick can certainly perform above the level of those recent starts and Loop Data this week, as he has re-emerged as a strong contender with new purpose in 2010. Do not underrate him.
7. Kyle Busch: Coming off finishes of 20th and 39th, Busch quickly needs to re-establish himself as a force to maintain his third-place spot in the Cup standings. He finished seventh and fifth at Loudon last year, so you can look for one of his better outings this week. Busch has a win, four Top Fives and Five Top 10s in 10 career starts at NHMS. He is 10th in DR (89.4) but does not rank prominently in any other Loop Data category. Yet Busch is capable of performing very well at any track in any week, and will be focused on getting back into a good groove.
8. Mark Martin: He sits in 11th place in the Cup standings, and needs a solid finish to remain in the current Chase field. Martin has not quite delivered as expected so far in 2010, but Loudon is a track where he can certainly come through with a strong finish. He won the second event at the site in 2009 after leading for 68 laps. It was his first victory in 26 career NHMS starts and is even more impressive when you consider he skipped the races at Loudon from 2007-08. He also has nine Top Fives and 14 Top 10s at the site. He is sixth in DR (98.0) and ARP (11.3) at New Hampshire. He is also sixth in Average Green Flag Speed (124.079).
9. Joey Logano: He is the defending champion of this event, having scored his first career victory at Loudon last season. Logano had a pair of Top 10 finishes and four Top 15s in the quartet of races leading up to a 33rd-place finish at Sonoma. Last season's NHMS win came in a rain-shortened event, but he overcame a crash and a lost lap to get to the front of the pack when it counted the most. He was also impressive in last year's Nationwide event at Loudon, capturing the pole and finishing second. Logano, a native of Middletown, Connecticut, considers NHMS to be his "home track". He is a top pick among the second-level drivers in Fantasy NASCAR this week.
10. Ryan Newman: He is in 15th place in the Cup standings, 82 points behind the 12th spot. The time is now for Newman to develop more consistency. Newman has won twice at Loudon, and has five Top Fives and 10 Top 10s in 16 career starts at the site. He is 10th in DR (90.6) and 12th in ARP (14.5). Newman is coming off a seventh-place finish in his most recent New Hampshire start and you can expect another Top 10 showing this week.
11. Dale Earnhardt Jr.; Fifth in DR (100.7) and ARP (10.9) at NHMS. Second in Quality Passes (337).
12. Jeff Burton: Four-time winner at NHMS has a DR of 91.5, which ranks ninth.
13. Martin Truex Jr.: Four Top 10s in eight NHMS starts. DR of 90.3 ranks 11th.
14. Matt Kenseth: 11 Top 10s in 20 Loudon starts. 81.5 DR.
15. Clint Bowyer: 2007 winner at Loudon. 89.0 DR is 13th.
16. Carl Edwards: 87.9 DR
17. Kasey Kahne: 81.3
18. Greg Biffle: 88.1
19. Juan Pablo Montoya: 84.5
20. David Reutimann: 72.8
21. Jamie McMurray
22. Marcos Ambrose
23. Brad Keselowski
24. Elliott Sadler
25. Sam Hornish Jr.